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Old Hickory’s Victory

The difficult birth of Jacksonian democracy.

Mar 15, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 25 • By VINCENT J. CANNATO
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The Birth of Modern Politics

Old Hickory’s Victory

Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and the Election of 1828
by Lynn Hudson Parsons
Oxford, 272 pp., $24.95

Americans today don’t have a very high opinion of politics. We like the idea of democracy, it is just politics that we are not so crazy about. Every campaign year brings more rending of garments in the media about the rise of “negative campaigning” and serious concerns over the “tone” of our politics. Bipartisanship is now viewed as the logical end of democracy.

The corollary to this distaste of politics is the idea that, in the not-too-distant past, there existed a time when politics was not as polarizing. In this telling, such a utopia was broken by the Lee Atwaters, Newt Gingriches, and Karl Roves of the world, who had the audacity to divide the electorate and highlight, in harsh tones, differences with their political opponents. This narrative is pretty much nonsense, and there is no better proof than how incessantly Barack Obama has alluded to ending our partisan divide, all the while pushing his own very partisan political agenda.

As Lynn Hudson Parsons shows in The Birth of Modern Politics: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and the Election of 1828, politics was pretty messy in the early 19th century, too. Parsons is not the first to call the 1828 presidential campaign the first modern campaign, but he gives a readable and balanced overview of not just the election, but also the politicians who helped create our contentious system of campaigning.

As everyone knows, the Founding Fathers distrusted factionalism and feared the rise of political parties. But the election of 1800 brought to a head the conflict between the Federalists and the emergent Jeffersonian Republicans. As the Federalist party collapsed, it appeared on the surface that factionalism was on the decline. But the contentious election of 1824—in which the House broke a deadlock in favor of John Quincy Adams despite Andrew Jackson’s having won more electoral votes—would foreshadow future political changes.

So how did the 1828 campaign give birth to modern politics? During the 1800 campaign, 11 of the 16 states had their presidential electors chosen by state legislatures, not the people directly. By 1828, that number was only two. Property qualifications for white men were either abolished or severely reduced. In response, voting participation dramatically increased. The common man was now able to take part directly in the political process in ways unknown a few decades earlier.

Of course, the irony is that such expansion of the franchise, and the surrounding rhetoric of expanding liberty to the common man, took place in the midst of slavery and the lack of women’s suffrage. This has caused some scholars to question whether there was much democracy in Jacksonian democracy. But Parsons notes that, despite the shortcomings of the American system, “the tectonic plates were shifting.” The republican spirit unleashed by the American Revolution continued to develop in the early 19th century, and the direction of American politics would continue toward greater freedoms and participation. This republican spirit made its way into the 1828 campaign, where can be found, Parsons writes, 

The elements, sometimes rudimentary, of most elections to come: coordinated media, fund-raising, organized rallies, opinion polling, campaign paraphernalia, ethnic voting blocs, image making, even opposition research, smear tactics and dirty tricks. .  .  . Medals were struck, to be worn as symbols of the candidates. Likenesses of the candidates appeared on plates, snuff boxes, and ladies’ hair combs.

The Jacksonians were especially good at understanding the importance of image. Their candidate was the military hero of the Battle of New Orleans, a Washington outsider, and a defender of the common man against an aristocratic elite. It was all very effective, much to Adams’s dismay.

What brought about these political divisions? Parsons equivocates a bit on whether it was socioeconomic status or ethnicity, but it is hard to read his book and not see a persistence of cultural divisions in American politics.

“The very name of Massachusetts is odious,” a Charleston newspaper noted in the 1820s. Thomas Jefferson, betraying more than a whiff of anti-Semitism, noted how New Englanders were marked “like the Jews, with such perversity of character, as to constitute from that circumstance the natural division of our parties.” (This was a century-and-a-half before the rise of Michael Dukakis and John Kerry and the epithet “Massachusetts liberal.”)

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